Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

James Randi and the empirical test.

(Science Week, Day 4!)

I wrote a reflection on him earlier this year, but James Randi gets a place in Science Week as well. He wasn’t a scientist by technicality, but he was a reminder by example of the value of stoic, scientifically rigourous thought when evaluating claims and claimants we see every day, including ones taken for granted. The basic principle is – as Richard Feynman put it simply – that if a hypothesized idea doesn’t match up with experiment, then it’s wrong.

Randi’s expertise was in the way of illusionists and mentalists, which suited him to produce hypotheses about how the seemingly paranormally-endowed might be producing the effects they demonstrate, sometimes even believing in those powers themselves. That underpinned his organisation’s Million Dollar Challenge. It wasn’t just a casual debunking, but a carefully-planned experiment designed to control for non-paranormal factors, agreed upon both by the organisation and the claimant. Many examples survive on YouTube, such as placing a remote viewer in an isolated room or covering full and empty water bottles with boxes to test a dowser.

Here’s one: a man who claimed to be able to move the pages of a phone book with his mind. Even Bob Barker helps out.